The house stands alone in a clearing. A vast bamboo grove provides a backdrop to this picturesque setting. The house is owned by a mother and her daughter-in-law who work the land in order to eke out a living. There are few men left to such endeavours as, surrounding this peaceful scene, Japan is in turmoil. The Sengoku, or Warring States, Period is in full swing and the land is awash with battles as warlords vie for supremacy.
The bamboo grove holds secrets, more than we could tell at this point. The first surprise it reveals is a ragtag band of starving samurai. They couldn’t be further removed from the noble image they otherwise might perpetuate. In this society every man is a samurai in the making. All he needs is a sword and the will to kill. The latter, in fact, is optional. The demand for killing is so great that many are pushed to it without agreement. The house is an easy mark for these haggard men and they descend upon it.
The food is eaten, anything of value is stripped and the women are raped and murdered. Finally the samurai set a blaze to remove any evidence of their crime. As the bamboo grove reclaims the men, the fire burns away the house and its contents. All is gone but the women, whose bodies remain unscathed. Something ties them too firmly to this place for fire to simply burn them away. They are the only evidence of a crime that was perpetrated. A black cat skulks into view and a pact is born.
So opens Kaneto Shindō’s ghoulish Kuroneko (aka The Black Cat)1. The black cat of the title proves an emissary of another world. The pact is one sealed by the blood he licks from the women’s necks. Soon after, the bodies of samurai begin appearing by the grove, their blood sucked from animal wounds. It is the young samurai Gintoki, having proved his capabilities in battle, who is charged with finding out what has happened to these men and felling the beasts that are responsible.
It would prove a difficult task for any warrior but things are further complicated by Gintoki’s connection to the place. He left that same grove just a few years earlier seeking to make his name. He left behind a loving mother and a devoted wife. Is it any wonder then that the ghosts that greet him as he rides through the bamboo late at night seem so familiar? He is the one samurai they cannot hate and who can dull their vengeance but how can he destroy the only remains of those he loved and how can these women, in league with dark gods, be rescued?
For those familiar with Shindō’s earlier film, 1964’s Onibaba, these vexations will sound familiar. The overlap between the films is obvious, marking them as obvious companions. There’s no doubt that both are excellent examples of period Japanese horror, fuelled more by atmosphere and high stylisation than overt violence or displays of the supernatural. Through their tales of female suffering, in a world so obviously shaped by men, they also find strong ties with even earlier ghost stories of the Japanese cinema, no doubt most famously Kenji Mizoguchi’s remarkable Ugetsu monogatari.
The chief difference between Shindō’s films and the work of Mizoguchi is the level of abstraction. Shindō is decidedly more modern in his technique2. His tale boasts a pared down simplicity, almost theatrical in how it focuses its expressive elements. Through long sequences, the tragic tale of the ghostly murderers and their estranged samurai companion unfold, often across various planes of the same set, divided by dynamic, theatrical lighting. More than fully realised locations, we instead have conceptual spaces, not entirely removed from the likes of the insane plastic surgeon’s amorphous clinic in Teshigahara’s Face of Another. To achieve this effect, Shindō not only relies on set design but also finds recourse to truly cinematic tricks, notably the use of composite shots. Through this technique actors can perform within a minimalist set but are framed by wafting shafts of bamboo. The grove surrounds them and seemingly encroaches on their every move.
The central location is the bamboo grove, a landmark for Gintoki’s house and also the space through which the samurai must travel, eventually lured to their death. Their downfall is assured by the very traits that they hold most proud. Encountering a young woman, Gentoki’s wife in another life, they offer her companionship as she traverses the dangerous path. Little do the samurai realise that the danger this dark road holds is for them and not the damsel. Chivalry guarantees they will escort the woman just as their sense of politeness will bring them inside her house to rest and share in some sake. Finally, the implicit prospect of sex will seal the deal but not before one or all the men boast of how wonderful it is to be a samurai in this world that tailors so completely to their needs.
Though toned down from Onibaba, Kuroneko also boasts an erotic charge as Gintoki and his wife reunite. Their pleasures together are short-lived, clouded in the dangers of their respective positions. Gintoki could not know that by lying with him and not feasting upon his blood, his late wife is consigning herself to the depths of hell. The pact she made after her death comes with many strings attached. So it is for women in this period. To comfort their men and support them as they must in this war-torn world, they invariably end up reaping the worst of every callous seed that’s sowed – in life or in death.
Unable to rescue his wife, Gintoki eventually must turn his attention to his mother. Unsure of how to proceed and unsure of just what exactly he is dealing with anymore, a battle of wits ensues that invariably favours the supernatural. Toying with their opponents’ weaknesses, the forces that fuel the otherworldly can easily manipulate and destroy mere men – those who can’t even regulate their own society and protect what they hold dear.
Though multi-faceted, Shindō’s direction allows the film a deceptively simple flow. His complicated choreography of movements through long takes impresses as does his restraint. The film’s few supernatural forays are not so much shockingly revealed as sadly unearthed. The relationship between the women and the cat is never fully explicated. It hardly seems to matter. Although the original tale may have much earlier origins, Poe famously painted the dark-haired feline as a mysterious emissary of destruction. Of course that destruction was always realised by men, thinking instead that they were battling the malevolent devices of the beast. Though grander in scope, Kuroneko’s tale holds similar shades. Wherever the cat came from and whatever pact it agreed with the women, it was not the one who made this world, its wars, or its patriarchy. In battling its designs, the men are confronted only with their own shortcomings.
Combining elements of film, theatre, and gymnastic displays the final product here is effectively creepy, buoyed by the tragedy of the central trio. Credit must also go to the film’s minimalist sound design and experimental, percussion-heavy score. The mews of the cat might seem innocuous or endearing were they not twinned with so much darkness and suffering. It’s a reminder of something that now seems desperately hard to find: a quality horror production. Steeped not in gore or special effects, the film simply unfolds an eerie tale with perfect pitch and focus. The results speak for themselves.
1 Or to afford it its full title, Yabu no naka no kuroneko or The Black Cat From (or In) the Grove.
2 I say this specifically in relation to Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu monogatari. His final film, Akasen chitai (aka Street of Shame), demonstrates that the old master was perfectly capable of utilising more modernistic modes of cinema expression. Indeed the film is, if anything, ahead of its time. He died the same year it was released.